I sat awkwardly on the couch in the living room. My friend Sammi’s mother and sister had kissed my cheeks in greeting, and then withdrawn to the kitchen, oddly quiet. They drew the curtain closed behind them.
I was not invited to follow.
Alone, I looked at the green balloons strewn across the floor. The family had intended to surprise me with a birthday party, but things had fallen apart, to a certain extent due to me not getting it and having earlier plans. I knew they were frustrated. I wondered if that was the reason for Sammi’s absence, or for the silence.
Breathing out slowly, I reminded myself that misunderstandings are part of life– especially living in a different culture. And that I really love this family. I hoped they knew that.
Earlier this week I moved out of my basement, to a second-story bedroom… which I am borrowing from my housemates’ children. Someone else is borrowing my space for several weeks, and the kids are sharing rooms. As I packed up to move, I read a post from my friends Andrew & Becca’s “Radical Hospitality” series on this blog, about the vulnerability that exists within relationships.
As I read their words on open hands and homes and hearts, and prepared to move to the second floor, I once again felt the vulnerability of receiving. Am I thankful enough? Present enough? Helpful, honest, flexible, strong, funny enough?
My friends would tell me to relax. But the fact is, at some point, we’ll note each others’ uneven edges and wish the other was… smoother. Or maybe more edgy. I know that when I see others’ frailties, I want to love well. The question is, when my own vulnerability is exposed– when I make cultural mistakes, when I am angry, when I am not flexible or present or strong or courageous enough– will I still receive the love that is offered me?
In the Poetry class this week, each student had to give a metaphor for themselves. “I am a seed,” one said. “I have a world inside that no one can see. I go deep, and I will change.” Another said she was a smile, something so simple but with “deep feeling,” meaning the most to people in their hardest times. A third was iron. “I carry many responsibilities at home and with family and with schoolwork. I must be strong.”
Students, via their metaphors, demonstrated higher degrees of honesty than people tend to use with everyday statements. In a few words, they expressed being incompletely understood, trying to support others in difficulty, and experiencing the weight of responsibilities… as well as what they hoped for themselves: change, joyfulness, strength.
Something in our class shifted as students exposed pieces of their souls. And then, together, we read “If.”
This poem tells the reader to be uncomplaining, uncompromising, and unstoppable by setbacks… or by successes. My students embraced the challenge not to let circumstances transform them. But, vulnerably, they questioned the advice to guard against any emotion. If “neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,” and if you respond the same way to triumph or disaster, Rudyard Kipling says “you’ll be a Man, my son!”
But I wonder, in the absence of celebration or of grief, would we still be human?
Thirty was a rich year. Rich with friendships, love, experiences, loss, travel, grieving, celebrating… I think that if 31 is going to be what I dream, I will need an even greater degree of openness/vulnerability in it. But strength in vulnerability comes from knowing, at the core of who I am, that I am approved by the One who matters most.
And as I told my students, I am a tree. My roots are deep. If days are dry or storms shake my branches, I am still deeply connected to the Source of all I need.
Back at Sammi’s house, the silence was interrupted by her mom coming into the room and turning off the lights. Then her sister held back the curtain. Sammi walked in with a smile, carrying a brightly-lit, beautifully decorated birthday cake.
The quietness was preparation. And I was surprised.